A Good News Story About EU Cooperation

The European Legal e-access conference Paris 21-23 November 2012.

There is much that is written that may falsely lead folk far from Europe to think that the EU vision is no longer successful, and that old Europe is slowly imploding. This meeting sure dispelled some of those myths. There is energy, enthusiasm and innovation going on in European circles that we English speakers are rarely exposed to. The European Digital Agenda is seen as a tool for economic growth, and this free conference provided an understanding of the legal e-access work underway.

It was organised by Juriconnexion, the French Association for law librarians and others whose work involves legal information, and was funded by sponsorship. Simultaneous translation into English was provided. The Paris Bar provided an excellent venue on the Île de la Cité, and the speakers came from a couple of dozen leading national organisations involved in digitising laws, translating laws, all aspects of making the law accessible to the citizens of Europe. All the talks can be viewed online in both English and French, and several written papers and presentations are also available.

The core of the discussion is the ideal of a single path of access to the laws of all European countries. The European Justice portal Europa provides access to national and EU laws, with summaries in English, French and German of decisions in other European languages. Eurlex is working to bring all its separate parts into one database, and a trial of the new approach is underway – this newsletter with information invites users to test the new interface. An excellent example of national provision of laws free of charge to the populace is Légifrance, seen as a model for other countries. In Germany part of the law is freely available via Juris, but part is subscription only.

A uniform approach to citation is a key factor in enabling a portal to work. Europe has created an agreed system of Uniform Resource Identifiers, or URI, for documents across jurisdictions. These are the ELI (European Legislation Identifier), a concept adopted in October 2012 by the EU Council, and the ECLI (European Case Law Identifier) which identifies the judgment; it is vendor and medium neutral and is usable by computers as well as humans.

An example of an ECLI is given at the EU Portal website:

ECLI:NL:HR:2009:384425, which could be decision 384425 of the Supreme Court (‘HR’) of the Netherlands (‘NL’) from the year 2009.

Within each country, a national ECLI coordinator decides on the court codes, deciding the 5th part of ECLI, so they can maintain national e-justice portals, for national implementation. The efforts now are directed to making the use of these consistent, irrespective of local citation guides, which are usually national in their focus.

The sessions under the heading e-Justice portal 3.0 library addressed the question of a single legal database, offered in full text. Whether this could ever be achieved was discussed; but unless publishers are part of this through the provision of open URLs, it will never be comprehensive. Issues of free access, and the right to cut and paste from public material, were also raised.

Different projects applying technology to simplify processes and practice were described. Lawyers in France use a virtual private network of lawyers, with secured links, providing equal access for individual lawyers as well as the big law firms. It is used for the exchange of legal documents, discovery etc. Claimants and plaintiffs don’t have to be present in court, and this has reduced time and expenditure greatly. 14,000 out of 24,000 lawyers use the system (see the latter part of this video for more details – the talk by General Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Mr André Gariazzo)

Video-conferencing in Finland, is used across borders to facilitate the court process, saving money, helping protect witnesses; and several other innovative time and money saving initiatives are underway. There is also the use by bailiffs across Europe of electronic safes.

Several speakers reflected on the ongoing conservatism of parts of the legal profession in many countries, and its apprehension over using cloud based technologies.

The underlying importance of translating laws framed a series of papers. There is advanced use of the semantic web to work with multiple legal concepts in multiple languages. The importance of translating all the law and the key role that translators have in helping make this happen was also discussed.

Eurovoc is a multilingual, ontology based, thesaurus which maps between different legal words and phrases using the semantic web, and contains an extensive Law domain. Validation of phrases is undertaken by human beings. The complication that arises from the legal terminology of every language, and resulting nuances of meaning, was addressed by several speakers in this session.

One of the papers outlined the EU Court of Justice terminology project with its multi lingual comparative vocabulary. It covers 29 systems and 23 languages. The Court of Justice was asked to see if it is possible to overcome obstacles of language to allow EU citizens to make inquiries in different languages, eg in French for a Spanish case. This has been done with immigrant and family law and work is starting on criminal law. Terminology and semantic relationships have been created. There are 24 linguists and lawyers covering the 25 jurisdictions and 23 languages involved.

Another project is Legicoop – the legislation co-operation network, and its aim is to provide exchange of experience and information on civil and criminal law, to allow one country to see what is happening elsewhere. For example, Romania may be trying to reform their bailiff laws, and they can easily identify what other EU countries have done. Exchanges are encrypted, and in various languages, although generally the language of exchange is English. However keywords can be entered in original language.

Finally, the issue of personal privacy, data protection, depersonalisation of caselaw and public access to decisions was debated. There was a round table on the protection of personal data – a tricky tightrope between rights of individuals and public rights. Papers by Kern, Lapp, Waechter and Saint Aubin  all discussed aspects of the theme. The European Data Protection Supervisor has published an opinion that data sharing could be a problem because many databanks are based in the US, where they could be subject to legislation such as the Patriot Act. More on the EU approach to privacy is here. E-justice needs to apply rights to the data, obligations for people in charge of handling data etc. The legal framework governing this data has to be coherent and consistent, and as yet there is inconsistency in the EU.

In summary – the conference provided an excellent, if exhausting, 2 days of papers, ideas, discussion and hope – to my mind this was a great example of how the EU collaborates in practical ways.


  1. The question of how to get access to foreign law has been of interest to Europeans and others for some time, of course. The Hague Conference on Private International Law and the European Commission sponsored a colloquium on the topic last February in Brussels. The agenda, a report on the meeting and the conclusions reached are available online.

    The Brussels colloquium involved more than Europeans. There were speakers from other continents, including a couple of Canadian panelists (Slaw’s own Simon Chester, for one.)

    The initiatives are not being taken in isolation. One of the principal organizers of The Hague’s work on the topic, Philippe Lortie, was on an opening panel of the Paris event described above.

    It’s not just a question of electronic access, of course, though that’s important. How is the law that one finds online applied to particular facts? Whose judgment can be relied on in such questions? And how does one answer these questions in an affordable way?

  2. Just a quick additional note – I omitted to mention the crucial joint role of ADIJ – Association pour le Développement de l’Informatique Juridique (The Association for the Development of Legal Science) who, along with Juriconnexion, were joint organisers of the European Legal e-Access conference.